The late Easter helped to give shopkeepers a welcome surprise when the volume of retail sales recorded its first year-on-year gain since January last year.
A healthy 44 per cent of those replying to the CBI’s April Industrial Trends survey said their sales were higher than in April last year while 41 per cent said they were down.
The resulting favourable balance of three per cent of the sample was the strongest since January last year and a dramatic recovery from minus 44 per cent in March. Retailers themselves had expected only a marginal improvement.
The benefit was heavily concentrated on supermarkets. Every single grocer replying to the CBI’s April Distributive Trades Survey reported sales higher than in April last year.
Shops selling footwear and leather goods also reported widespread gains in their best month for more than a year.
Every other mainstream street category – with the exception of household durables – fared appreciably better than in the recent past, but still fell short of last April.
Motor traders failed to follow through a useful recovery in March. But those reporting lower sales year on year outnumbered those with an improvement by only 16 per cent.
That compared with an adverse balance of six per cent last month, but was otherwise less bad than in any month since May 2008.
Sales of parts and accessories are driving this recovery, with a positive balance of 42 per cent this month after 64 per cent in March.
For vehicles, the adverse balance crept up to 29 per cent from 22 per cent in March, but was otherwise an improvement on every other month since last June.
“This year’s later Easter may well have influenced the April retail figures and, while they mark a respite, should not be taken as an indication of a high street revival,” warned Andy Clarke, chairman of the CBI’s distributive trades panel and chief operating officer of Asda.
“With unemployment rising and growth in average earnings down, consumers remain very wary and retailers themselves think that sales will drop again in May.”
Taking the latest three months together, there was still an adverse balance of minus 22 per cent. But that was a marked improvement on minus 39 per cent for the three months to March and also from a recent trough of minus 49 per cent for November to January.
Howard Archer, chief UK and European economist at IHS Global Insight, said: “Clearly the sharp rise in April’s balance was significantly boosted by this year’s later Easter, just as March’s balance was likely to have been distorted downwards by this factor.
“Sharply reduced mortgage payments and lower inflation is boosting the purchasing power of those with jobs.
“The problem remains, though, that consumers are coming under increasing pressure from soaring unemployment and markedly slowing wage growth. Indeed more and more people are facing pay freezes or wage cuts, while overtime and bonus payments are being reduced.
“Consequently, we are sorry to say that we still suspect that consumer spending will contract over the coming months, although we do believe that the rate of decline in UK economic activity peaked in the first quarter.”